Pope Francis has cancelled his upcoming trip to Dubai for the Cop28 climate talks, on the advice of doctors concerned about his recent flu-like symptoms, the Vatican said.
The 86-year-old, who has made protecting the environment a cornerstone of his 10-year papacy, had planned to become the first pontiff to attend the UN event since the process began in 1995.
With Francis’s withdrawal from the conference, which begins on Thursday, Cop28 will lose a high-profile advocate of the environment, a moral authority recognisable on the global stage whose words some believed could nudge leaders to take concrete action.
On Saturday, he cancelled events due to what the Vatican called “light flu symptoms”. It said that a CT scan had ruled out “risks of pulmonary complications”. The pope was forced to recite the traditional Angelus prayer on Sunday from his residence rather than overlooking St Peter’s Square.
On Tuesday, Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni said in a statement: “Although the Holy Father’s general clinical picture has improved with regard to his flu-like condition and inflammation of the respiratory tract, doctors have asked the Pope not to make the trip planned for the coming days to Dubai.
“Pope Francis accepted the doctors’ request with great regret and the trip is therefore cancelled.”
Bruni – who just hours earlier had told a briefing that the pope would be attending – added he still wished to be part of discussions in Dubai, without specifying how.
Francis, who turns 87 next month, has suffered a series of health issues in recent years, from knee and hip pain to an inflamed colon and most recently, hernia surgery in June.
But Bruni said the pope would lead his weekly audience on Wednesday morning as planned.
The leader of 1.3 billion Catholics, more than half of whom live in the developing world, Francis has long insisted on the link between the climate crisis and poverty, with the world’s most marginalised paying the highest price for global heating.
In Dubai, the pope was expected to use the platform to castigate countries for a lack of action on the climate crisis, and seek to persuade them to dramatically cut their greenhouse gas emissions.
He was also expected to play a role in rebuilding trust between climate-vulnerable nations and rich, consumerism-driven polluters.
Francis’s address to world leaders at Cop28 would have come just weeks after he published a text in October warning that the world was “collapsing” and near the “breaking point” due to global warming.
That warning – which expressed frustration at inadequate responses by governments to the climate crisis – was a follow-up to his seminal 2015 thesis on the environment Laudato Si (Praise Be To You), a passionate critique of human-made climate change and its repercussions across the globe that relied on science.
It is believed to have helped contribute to a breakthrough in UN climate talks in Paris a few months later, when countries committed to limit warming to “well below” two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and preferably the safer 1.5C limit.
Francis wrote in October that the Cop28 talks could “represent a change of direction” if participants were to make binding agreements on moving from fossil fuels to clean energy sources such as wind and solar.
Besides addressing world leaders, Francis was expected to inaugurate the first-ever faith pavilion at Cop, in a sign of the growing engagement of religion in climate issues.